Who Sees Arabic Literature (in Translation)? Who Reads It?

RAYA literary agent Yasmina Jraissati

This week, Yasmina Jraissati writes in L’Orient Littéraire about the relative visibility (or invisibility) of Arabic literature in Western markets.

As an agent specializing in Arabic literature (in translation), Jraissati is frequently asked about the visibility of Arabic literature, which is usually code for: “Do Western readers really buy Arabic lit?”

Italy, Jraissati says, seems to be the biggest up-and-coming consumer of Arabic literature. Coincidentally, I recently got an email from journalist (and fellow blogger) Elisa Pierandrei, who reminded me that Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro is coming out in Italian next month. Another Italian blog, Letture Arabe, also discusses Arabic lit in Italian.

It’s possible the interest originated with Salwa El Naimi’s Burhan el 3asal (Proof of Honey), of which Italians have bought more than 80,000 copies .

And, Jraissati said, Italian interest is growing. She says that at least five houses, large and small,  each acquired at least one Arabic title in the year 2008-2009.

Of course, comprehensive sales numbers are difficult to come by. On Alaa Al Aswany’s blog, he posts an Observer article that says 75,000 copies of the British edition of The Yacoubian Building have been sold and “his next novel, Chicago, did even better.”

On IkhwanWeb, Al Aswany is quoted as saying “I sold 160,000 in France alone in one year.”

However, Jraissati says, these are the exceptions. “Sales numbers commonly range from 500 to 2,000 copies in markets like France….”

In France—a high-translating country—the most-translated languages are: English (62%), Japanese (8.3%), German (6.2%), Italian (4.3%), and Spanish (4.0%). About 0.9% of the titles translated are from Dutch authors, which is equivalent, Jsraitti writes, to 83 titles.

She adds:

In comparison, the number of Arabic titles translated per year can generously be estimated to a maximum of 20.

She calls the Anglo-American market “the most difficult one to penetrate.” This is probably true, as English is a “low translating language” (2-3 percent of all titles on the market each year). Still, for all that, the number of Arabic titles translated into English is relatively high.

I’m not sure how many titles a year make it into English. We’ll have to count the AUC Press titles (10-15? more?), and then add in Archipelago (1-2), the university presses (Syracuse, Texas), Quercus, Interlink, the odd Aflame or Banipal Books title, Saqi, Comma Press, the promised titles from Bloomsbury-Qatar, and more. I’m sure there are more than 20 in a year.

As to the AUC Press titles alone, Mark Linz said in a recent interview with The British Council, in response to “How many books do you translate and publish each year?”:

We have considerable momentum at the moment with our annual Naguib Mahfouz Prize, which draws a lot of interesting new material. We have a tough time keeping our programme down to 15-20 books a year. In total we have about 150 titles, either already published or in preparation, of Arabic literature in translation. About 30 of these are Naguib Mahfouz titles.

However, how many of these books make it to interested readers? I would guess relatively few. AUC Press now has a U.K. distributor—Arabia—but I don’t believe there is any reliable distribution mechanism in the U.S.

Jraissati says that, inside UK and U.S. markets, publishers willing to give a read to Arabic fiction are rare. She writes:

International publishers may be curious of this literature, but they rarely go as far as acquiring rights. This makes you wonder whether it is the quality of the Arabic literature that is at stake, or if there are external reasons to its marginalization.

Of course, publishers—she says—are not completely to blame.

…the Arab market is completely opaque, and publishers have no means to evaluate a book: Who is the author and what is the importance of an author in the Arab cultural landscape? What is the extent of his impact on the local press? How many copies has a book sold in its market of origin? How does it compare to other sales? How original or literary is its content and language compared to other books?

Presumably the “Arabic Booker” helps some with this confusing opacity, although it’s only been around a few years, and most of the significant Arab authors (Elias Khoury, Sonallah Ibrahim, Ibrahim al-Koni) have not been mentioned on its rolls.

Jraissati also wonders to what extent the desire for translation is deforming Arabic fiction. Literary scholar Samia Mehrez has said she does not believe Egyptians write for translation. But, Jraissati said, in Lebanon:

…readers measure an author’s quality by the number of contract he signed abroad. The more a book is translated, the more the volume of its sales grows in its country of origin. This mirror game takes unexpected turns as numerous Arab authors, hungry for acknowledgment, have chosen to address the international market directly, often offering a literature made to satisfy Western publishers’ appetites. In doing so, they give some reality to what originally was only an Orientalist fantasy.

With all this, how’s a publisher to find high-quality Arabic books?

Of course, it’s not really so complicated as all that. Publishers can find trusted readers/informers who apprise them of what’s new and interesting on the Arabic-lit scene. They can make partnerships with publishers like AUC Press who are already bringing out titles but don’t have adequate distribution mechanisms. They could check the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105” list or The Quarterly Conversation’s translate this!” feature, and they can check out Banipal and WWB.

And, for goodness sakes, they can always read the blogs….